Employers Anxious About Hiring People With Disabilities, but See Their Value

By Lauren La Rose (CP) – November 5, 2009

TORONTO — While most employers see people living with disabilities as valuable assets to the workplace, anxieties over job accommodation or firing workers discourage some from hiring them, a new study suggests.

More than 100 human resource executives from a cross-section of Ontario-based firms took part in the study commissioned by the Job Opportunity Information Network. JOIN helps individuals with disabilities to find and maintain employment, and assists employers in recruiting candidates.

Among respondents, 36 per cent say they were discouraged from hiring a person with a disability out of concern that it would be harder to dismiss a person with a disability than someone without one.

Conrad Winn, president of Compas, whose company conducted the survey, was among those attending “Employing Individuals with Disabilities: Strategies on Inclusion, Recruitment and Retention,” JOIN’s day-long conference Thursday for employers.

Winn said anxiety over having the recruitment of a person with a disability not work out was the greatest reservation expressed by employers.

“I think there’s all sorts of elements depending on the individual employer,” he said. “One is simply the sheer discomfort: you’ve raised their expectations and because you really want to do good and do well and now you’ve dashed them so there’s that human side. There’s also a fear of leaving some people the impression that you’re letting people with disabilities down, or maybe even the impression that maybe you’re being unfair or discriminatory.”

“There’s lots of reasons and sometimes the most powerful reason that causes fear is when people don’t think through the issue.”

The survey found 24 per cent of respondents said concerns over the possibility of higher absentee rates discouraged them from hiring a person with a disability. Perceived expense tied to hiring an employee with a disability and increased effort to train employees were also cited as concerns.

Cory Garlough, vice-president of global employment strategies for Scotiabank, said from an HR perspective, companies should be ensuring policies and programs support the type of employer they want to be – namely, one that’s inclusive of all individuals.

Garlough noted that his company offers a centralized pool of funds to help with accommodations of new employees, as well as a tech group dedicated to ensuring access for both workers and customers with disabilities.

“You do it for your customers in terms of making accommodations, you do it for employees as well,” he said. “What we try to do is make it easy for people, so it’s the path of least resistance.”

Despite anxieties expressed, employers surveyed also believed hiring an individual with a disability could add both value and a fresh perspective to the workplace.

Fifty-three per cent of respondents say the idea that employees with a disability will try harder would motivate them to hire.

“If an employee comes in and sees a person with a disability doing a job, doing a really good job, they’ll say ‘You know what? If they can overcome all that stuff, you know what, I should be able to even do more,”‘ said Danny Brennan, JOIN treasurer and entrepreneurial programs manager at the Toronto Business Development Centre. “They can be a motivating factor to make some change in the workplace.”

Brennan said continuing to tell stories of successful people with disabilities that get and retain jobs or start businesses is key to helping to break down barriers and stigmas.

Conference attendees got a first-hand glimpse of such perspectives from high-profile conference speakers like Ontario Lt.-Gov. David Onley, who had polio as a child and uses a scooter to get around.

Also speaking was Dr. Jennifer Arnold, star of the TLC reality series “The Little Couple,” who spoke candidly about overcoming personal and professional challenges and rising in the ranks of her profession.

Arnold, who stands three feet, two inches tall, said employers shouldn’t be afraid to ask applicants about their capabilities and what accommodations they need. But she said they should also trust that the person being interviewed is able to discern whether they’re capable physically of doing the job or not.

The neonatologist said her own on-the-job accommodations are quite minimal – using step stools at bedsides and a scooter for distance.

She implored employers to hire the most qualified candidates, regardless of whether they have a disability.

“I hope you’ll look beyond the disability and look to the resume.”

Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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